You’ve made your first DIY lip balms, body butters, and maybe even a lotion. You’ve shared your creations with your friends and family, and they love them! Now you’ve got the itch to try creating your own recipes instead of just following ones you found online.

But… where do you start? How to you make the jump from using someone else’s formulations to starting from a blank page? How do you know what you’re allowed to do? Can you combine these two ingredients? How much emulsifier do you need?

How I Would Learn to Formulate (if I could start over)

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I started making back in 2011, and I wasted years of time, way too much money, and a truly embarrassing amount of ingredients before I finally learned how to really start learning how to formulate. So, in this post I’m going to share four essential (and cheap!) habits that will help you become a formulator without pulling your hair out or flushing lots of money down the drain. I just wish I’d done all this stuff from day one—it would’ve saved me years.

Habit #1

This first habit is a bit counter-intuitive, and possibly a bit of a bummer… but it’s also completely free and I promise it’ll save you a lot of stress and anxiety. I’ve noticed a lot of new makers set themselves up for failure and disappointment, and they do it by accident and with the best of intentions. This first habit is all about avoiding that.

Imagine you’d never cooked a single thing in your life, and you start by making some toast. That was easy enough, and delicious! Given your early success, you should be able to open your own catering company in a few months, yeah? Yeah… no.

This isn’t all that different from making your first lip balm and immediately planning the launch of your skincare brand, with that lip balm as your first product. Don’t get me wrong—I did, too. I was excitedly planning the launch of Humblebee Beauty & Skin before I really knew what a preservative was.

I kept making, experimenting, and learning, and the more I did, the more I realized I had dramatically under-estimated the scope of what I was trying to learn. As you’ll know if you’ve been following me for a while, I ended up falling in love with the experimentation part so much that I abandoned the idea of selling pretty fast. But, if your end goal is starting your own business, realizing that making a great lip balm doesn’t mean you’re equipped to start a business yet can be very disappointing, and possibly so disheartening that you just want to give up.

So, the first habit is to extend your timelines. Think in years rather than months. Learning to formulate takes time. I’m over a decade in and I’m still learning new things all the time—and that’s a huge part of what I love about formulation. Be patient and generous with yourself as you learn and grow. There’s a ton to learn, and if you burn yourself out in year one with high expectations and super tight deadlines you’ll never achieve your dreams.

If you end up sorting things out sooner—awesome! But if not, you haven’t set yourself up to feel like a failure right from the get-go.

Habit #2

I know I just said that learning to formulate takes time, but you do have some control over how fast you go.

I see a lot of new makers do something that is the learning equivalent of running as fast as you can… on a really round-about route. You’re making some progress, but you’re also wasting a ton of time and energy. That’s why this second habit is all about hopping on the learning fast train—and it also happens to double as the saving-money train (which is always appreciated!).

Imagine your goal was to learn how to make the most delicious sandwich in world as quickly as possible. How would you do that? Would you make 30 identical sandwiches all at once, eat leftovers every day for a month, and then try again with another 30 sandwiches a month later… or would you make one new sandwich every day?

Option 1 puts a lot of pressure on you to make a really great sandwich because there’s going to be 30 of them—that’s tons of ingredients!—and you’re going to be eating them for a month, so if they’re gross… yikes.

Option 2—making a new sandwich each day—lets you try something new, see how that new thing goes (and learn from it!), and then try again tomorrow.

I know that seems obvious, but many new makers take the “30 sandwiches” approach to learning to formulate and it is crippling. It’s stressful, wasteful, and often so disappointing that you’ll get discouraged in no time.

So, I am BEGGING you: make smaller batches. Quick, inexpensive iterations will teach you 1000x faster than huge batches, and for a fraction of the cost. You’ll feel free to experiment, try new things, and potentially fail because you’re only working with $0.40 of ingredients instead $15 worth.

You’ll need two things in order to make small batches:

The first is a scale precise enough to weigh out small amounts of ingredients; I recommend one accurate to 0.01g with a maximum weight of at least 500g. You can spend around $100 on this, but you definitely don’t have to.

I love my Jennings TB500 (USA / Canada), which was about $80–90 USD, but I also recently purchased an inexpensive scale with the same specs for about $15 (USA / Canada) to use in the videos for my brand new beginners mini-course. While it certainly won’t last as long as the Jennings scale (I find cheaper scales only tend to last about a year before breaking), it works just fine.

And the second thing you’ll need leads us to habit #3 😉

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Habit #3

This third habit is what allows you to practice with smaller batches while ensuring your formula will still work if/when you want to make a bigger batch of it later—but it’s so much more than that.

It’s the formulation equivalent of learning to read. This habit is essential for understanding, learning, and pattern recognition.

It’s working in percentages—and believe me, I know this can be a tough sell.

Learn more: Formulating and DIYing with Spreadsheets

A photo from a 2013 making session featuring volume measurements.

When I first got started I didn’t understand why this was so important. It seemed fussy and unnecessary—just something that was going to slow me down and complicate things. After all, I was making stuff I loved without working in percentages, so how important could it be? As it turns out… really important.

If I had committed to working this way from day one I would’ve shaved years off my learning journey. As it was, I ended up having to re-learn and re-calibrate almost everything I knew when I finally made the switch. I still get frustrated when I look back at old notes and blog posts—it’s like they’re written in a different language, and translation is not always possible. Dangnabbit, past Marie!

How to Make Pemberley Hand Lotion

Learn more: How to Scale Any Recipe

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said this is the formulation equivalent of learning to read. When you can formulate in percentages, you’ll be able to recognize and understand formulation structures and patterns. You’ll be able to tell if actives are used at effective levels, if a emulsion has enough emulsifier, or roughly how fragrant something will be just by looking at the formula. You’ll begin seeing the formulation matrix, and it starts to feel like a superpower pretty quickly.

If you’re new to working in percentages, I highly recommend you sign up for my new DIY Skincare for Beginners mini-course: there’s a free option and a more in-depth paid option. The in-depth, paid option will get you started working with percentages and show you how to make a free spreadsheet do all the math for you. The reviews have been great and I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve built ❤️

Habit #4

If you’ve ever looked at an emulsifier and wondered how on earth you’re supposed to know how much to use, or purchased an expensive new active but had no idea how to add it to a formula—well, that’s what habit #4 is all about. If you were on the fence about habit #3, hopefully this will help convert you—because habit #4 only works if you work in percentages. Otherwise it’s like trying to read a book in a foreign language.

Think of it a bit like this: is $5 a good tip? Just the amount—$5—isn’t enough to answer that question. You need at least two more pieces of information: what sort of purchase was this, and how much was the total bill?

If you bought a $3 to go coffee at a cafe, $5 is a very generous tip; but if you just enjoyed a $200 lobster dinner at a sit down restaurant… not so much. That’s because tipping guidelines are generally based on a percentage of the total (and some other oddities we won’t get into here…), so “$5” just isn’t enough information. That situation is a 166% tip, while the second one is a 2% tip, even though both are the same amount of money.

It’s the same with formulation. Our fourth habit is ingredient research; but because straight amounts of ingredients isn’t enough information, ingredient usage guidelines are all communicated in percentages.

Making Cosmetics’ product details for isopropyl myristate (IPM). Note all the different categories of data including description, INCI, usage rate, application/use suggestions, and more. At the bottom there are links to SDS, sample formulations, and more!

No amount of research will confidently tell you if 1 tsp or 5g is a safe or effective amount of an ingredient, but once you start speaking in percentages you’ll easily to able to determine if 3% of an active is too much, or if 1% emulsifier makes sense for a formula. Your research will straight up tell you “use this ingredient at 2–5%”—if you’re trying to work in ounces or tablespoons that information is useless, but if you’re working in percentages it is clear as day.

Thorough research empowers you to work with any ingredient you want to use. I’ve shared two thorough blog posts on how to research your ingredients (what information to look for and where to find it)—I recommend starting there.

  1. How to Research Your Ingredients: Part 1
  2. How to Research Your Ingredients: Part 2

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Ok—those are the four formulation habits I wish “past me” had adopted from day 1. Would you add anything to the list?